The Crust and the Core Redux


It’s been a busy week. Something had to give. Right now it’s blogging. But I thought I’d mention two things.

First, if you are in the Grand Rapids area you may want to check out this Young and Reformed conference tonight and tomorrow morning (October 22-23). Speakers include Mike Wittmer, David Murray, and me.

Second, I thought it might not be a complete waste of your time to check out this “classic” from ye olde blog archives.


If we are to be fruitful and godly Christians we need to have a theological core without being theologically crusty.

In desiring a theological core I don’t mean that all Christians must be bookish and given to intellectual contemplation. I mean that every Christian must be shaped from the inside out by a set of convictions about who God is and what he has accomplished in Jesus Christ. As Christians we should be animated (given life) and motivated (compelled to action) by a core of doctrinal truths–truths like God is loving, sovereign, and holy; God created the world and created it good; as a result of Adam’s sin humans are bent toward evil; Jesus Christ was God’s Son, begotten not created; Jesus suffered and died on the cross for sins and rose again on the third day; the Holy Spirit is God and fills us with power, enables us to believe, equips us with gifts, and bears fruit in our lives; the Bible is God’s word; Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and justification is by faith alone.

These truths need to be more than a set of beliefs we assume. They should be the lens through which we look at ourselves and the world. There are many Christians and churches that don’t deny any cardinal doctrine of Christian faith, but they still don’t have a theological core. They have, instead, a musty statement of faith they barely understand and hardly believe and wouldn’t dare preach. They are animated and motivated by politics, church growth, relational concerns and the like, but the gospel is merely assumed. “Yes, yes–of course we believe in the Virgin Birth, and the atonement, and the resurrection, and heaven and hell,” they say. But its all periphery, not core. It’s all assumed, not all-consuming. Theologically hollow congregations and pastors may like to think they will bequeath a gospel legacy to the next generation, but the truth is we only pass on what is our passion. New converts and new kids won’t think and live and love like mature Christians, let alone be able to articulate the Christian story, if our beliefs rest in a pamphlet and not in our hearts.

I make no apologies for having a theological church. The church ought to be about the business of the gospel, and the gospel is a message of historical fact plus God-given interpretation. That’s theology. I hope we never feel like we have the “theology thing” down at URC just because we have solid book studies and long, meaty sermons. The “theology thing” is a lifelong project of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. We want to be thinking Christians who know what we believe, why we believe it, and live and die in the comfort of these beliefs.

Having a theological core means, among other thing, that our unity is theological. Of course we want to be united in love and purpose too. But whatever actions and affections we share in unison ought to radiate from a theological core. There is so much talk around the broader church about being missional Christians that it’s easy to think the church should be missional-centric. And in one sense, mission is certainly at the center of what we do. But mission itself is not what ties us together or fires us up. It’s only when the mission is defined and it’s genesis is proclaimed that we can rally around mission.

What I mean is that we should be, first of all, Christocentric; that is, centered on the cross of Christ. Christ is our identity, our passion, and our hope. And because of this identity, passion, and hope we pray, and evangelize, and do missions. But missions is not the center. Christ is–which shapes, defines, and launches us into mission. It’s like John Piper’s famous line: “Mission is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is.” Being missional is not a sufficient basis for unity. One, because I’m never quite sure what missional means. Two, because the blazing hot center of Christian identity, passion, and hope is not that we are all doing things in Jesus name. Of course, we should be doing things in Jesus’ name. But the blazing hot center is what God has already done for us in Christ. This must always be explained and rejoiced in, not merely assumed.

Which brings me back to the main point. We desperately need Christians and pastors and missionaries and churches and denominations and movements and institutions which are theological to the core, where doctrines are not simply items to be checked off the dogmatic grocery list or statements to be dusted off out of the ecclesiastical attic. We must all be theological because being a Christians means we embrace a message about who Jesus is and the victory he won for us. And that’s theology.

So, core, yes. Crust? No.

Please, don’t skip the last part of this post, especially if you really liked the first part. Because you may just be a crusty Christian if you’re not careful.

What makes a Christian crusty? A number of things. For starters, it’s an attitude. It’s a demeanor where being Calvinist or paedobaptist or inerrantist (three things I am gladly) are put on like armor or wielded like weapons, when they are meant to be the warm glow of a Christian whose core radiates with love for Christ and the gospel. I believe in theological distinctives–I believe in them and I believe it is good to have them–but if the distinctives are not manifestly the flower of gospel root, the buds aren’t worth the blooming.

A second mark of crusty Christians is approachability, as in, not having any. There is a sizing up-ness that makes some theological types unnecessarily prickly. They are bright and opinionated and quickly analytical. As a result, knowingly or unknowingly, they emit a vibe which communicates something between “You Max Lucado reading moron!” and “I wish R.C. Sproul were here to teach you a thing or two!” Crusty Christians are hard to be around. They are intimidating instead of engaging and growling instead of gracious. They are too willing to share their opinions on everything and unable to put any doctrine in any category not marked “absolutely essential.”

When theology is more crust than core, it’s not so much that we care about good theology too much, we just don’t care about some other hugely important things in the same proportion. So we end up largely skeptical of a prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted, godly, Arminian leaning pastor. Now, I might think such a pastor is prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted and godly despite too much emphasis on libertarian free will, but I sure hope to be mighty thankful for all his prayerfulness, fruitfulness, and warm-hearted godliness. Some Christians allow evangelism to trump all other considerations, others size up fellow Christians by their attention to social justice concerns, but a lot of us do our judging with theology. If the theology fits, the lack of mission, prayer, and compassion doesn’t matter much. But if a few theological pieces are misplaced in the puzzle, see you later and don’t let Hymenaeus and Philetus door hit you on the way out.

Striking the balance is not easy. But let’s try hard to be discerning and grounded without always looking for the next theological misstep in our friends, our family, or the songs we sing. And let’s be able to tell the difference between wandering sheep and false teachers. We must delineate between a slightly ill-informed wording of a phrase and a purposeful rejection of truth. We must pursue a passion for fidelity to Scripture and a winsomeness that sweetens the already honey-like drippings of the word of God. Let us be more like a chocolate covered raisin, likeable on the outside and surprisingly good for you on the inside, and less like a tootsie roll pop with its brittle, crunchy exterior that must be broken through before anyone can get to the good stuff. Our theological heart, if it is worth anything, will pulse throughout our spiritual bodies, making us into someone more prayerful, more godly, and more passionate about the Bible, the lost, and the world around us. We will be theologically solid to the core, without the unnecessary crust.

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